Report on the social and ethical challenges of synthetic biology

20 June 2008

An independent report on the social and ethical challenges associated with research into synthetic biology has been published this month (see press release). The report, Synthetic Biology: social and ethical challenges’, has been written by Andrew Balmer and Paul Martin of the Institute for Science and Society at the University of Nottingham and was commissioned by the BBSRC’s Bioscience for Society Panel.

The report begins by giving an overview of synthetic biology and summarising the main areas of research in this field. It then goes on to review the main social and ethical issues raised in public debate and the corresponding policy responses. The key issues were identified as uncontrolled release, bioterrorism, patenting and the creation of monopolies, trade and global justice and creating artificial life. The authors concluded that a number of questions need to be addressed by the government, research funders and the scientific community in order for effective governance of synthetic biology. They also recommend early public engagement in order to ensure that the technology does not get ahead of public attitudes and the potential benefits are not overhyped. In addition, they recommend a review of existing controls and regulations in order to ensure a robust governance framework is in place prior to introduction of the applications of synthetic biology.

The BBSRC is working with sister research councils in order to address the ethical and regulatory issues that may arise as a result of synthetic biology research; they are considering the recommendations in the report and will use its conclusions to inform policy in this area. The Royal Society is also involved in addressing policy issues in relation to synthetic biology and called for views on this subject in July 2007 (see previous news).

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